Archive for May, 2009

Launch Party

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 14, 2009 by telescoper

The Big Day has finally arrived!

I’ve managed to submit my paper to the journal and the ArXiv before the little shindig we’ve been planning for the Planck and Herschel launch gets under way at 1pm. Business as usual so far, though.

Strangely, I haven’t managed to get nervous yet, although I have to say  there are many anxious faces around the department. I just keep telling people how much simpler their life is going to be if it all goes wrong, without all that messy and unnecessarily complicated data to deal with. It bothers me sometimes that I don’t often get nervous expect when watching sport. Mind you, being  a Newcastle United supporter probably makes me more nervous more often than most people.

Anyway, at times like this a  stiff upper lip is obviously called for. Anyone who cracks now is clearly not officer material. There’ll be plenty of time for panic later on.

It’s now about 12.45 and the launch is scheduled for 14.12.  With impeccable timing, the First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, is due to arrive in the department at 14.30. I hope he doesn’t think it’s going to be delayed especially for him. I also hope we’re not all in tears when he gets here.

We’re going to be watching on a big screen via a satellite downlink. Not quite as good as being there in person, but probably better than watching it on the net (which you can do here).

Anyway, I can hear the wine bottles being opened so I’m going to barge my way to the front of the queue, feigning nerves in order to justify a calming tipple.

I’ll be back later to complete the story, for better or worse.

Fingers crossed. TTFN.



Well here I am back from the do. It all seemed to go pretty well, although I wasn’t paying attention at the exact time of the launch – opening a bottle of wine – so I failed to get nervous even then. As far as I can tell the launch went like clockwork – or at least like Newtonian Mechanics – and the ground station even managed to handshake with both satellites after separation.

I was particularly impressed to see that ESA had roped in affable compère and media god Des Lynam to provide expertise in his accustomed role as  TV anchor man, although for some reason he was operating under the pseudonym of David Southwood:

Anyway, all seems to be set fair. I’m delighted. It will be a while before we get any science results, as it takes several weeks to get to L2.  I’m looking forward to first light from Herschel fairly soon, but science from Planck will be a while coming and even when it does it the information will be strictly controlled.

Anyway, in case you missed it here’s the liftoff!

P.S. We had a few bottles of special Herschel wine. Vintage 2001 Rioja, full-bodied and uncompromising. Not to everyone’s taste. I quite liked it but I was already quite drunk.

Unravelling CERN

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 13, 2009 by telescoper

A disturbing piece of news passed me by last week. One of the founder members, Austria, has decided to pull out of CERN, the home of the much-vaunted Large Hadron Collider. The announcement was made on 8th May 2009, but I missed it at the time owing to my trip to Berlin.

Austria, a founder member of CERN, has been a member of the 20-nation body since 1959, but its justification for leaving, according to Austria’s Minister for Science Johannes Hahn, is that the CERN subscription ties up about 70% of the nation’s budget for international research. To quote him

“In the meantime there have been diverse research projects in the European Union which offer a very large number of different scientists’ perspectives..”

Austria only contributes 2.2 percent of CERN’s budget, but it will be the first country to leave the organization since Spain’s departure in 1969. Spain rejoined in 1983. According to a statement,

“CERN would be sorry to lose Austria as one of its member states and sincerely believes that it would be in Austria’s best interests to remain a member..”

The immediate consequence of this will be a (small) increase in the subscriptions payable by other member nations in order to plug the funding gap left by Austria’s departure. However, particle physicists will probably see this as a very worrying precedent that might signal to other funding bodies that they could think the previously unthinkable and follow Austria’s example.

The CERN subscription payable by the United Kingdom comes from the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Although it amounts to about £82 million, this is about 16% of the STFC budget, which is a much smaller fraction than in the case of Austria. However, the consequences of one of the larger contributors like the UK pulling out of CERN would be extremely serious, because of the large increases in remaining subscriptions that would be needed to fill the gap that would be created.

All this puts even more pressure on the Large Hadron Collider to produce the goods and it also reinforces the view I expressed in one of my first ever blog posts that we may be nearing the time when nations decide that Big Science is just too expensive and  too esoteric to be worth investing in…

STOP PRESS:  New just in from Thomas (below) reveals that the Austrians have done a U-bahn U-turn and are not, after all, going to pull out of CERN.

For more information, see the story in Physics World.


Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 12, 2009 by telescoper

With the launch of Planck and Herschel only two days away, excitement is reaching fever pitch. As the countdown inches slowly towards the moment of reckoning the tension mounts…

This post would have been a bit more exciting if all that had been true. Of course we now do have a definite launch window for Planck, 14th May 2009. The launch window opens at 14.12 BST and will remain open for about two hours. Let’s hope they manage to get the thing up in that time, otherwise there’ll be yet another substantial delay.

Planck will be launched with its sister-mission, Herschel.  They will both be carried by an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency’s launch site in Kourou, French Guyana. Within half an hour of launch, Planck and Herschel will separate and start on their journeys.  While both satellites are going to orbit the second Lagrangian Point (L2), they will have slightly different orbits.  It will take Planck around 6 weeks to get to L2, during which time it will start to cool down its cryogenic systems. Eventually it will be the coolest thing in space.

Of course that is all very exciting, but it would have been a lie to say that the excitement is mounting that much back here at home. Together with the fact that the undergraduate examination period is upon us, the department is extremely quiet and those that are most nervous have taken their jitters to South America. The fact is that most of the people directly involved with Planck or Herschel have actually been invited to the launch and have either already made their way there or have at least set out on their journeys to the jolly.

We do, however, plan to have a small function here to mark the  launch on Thursday with wine and nibbles and talks about the science. I hope it’s not tempting fate. I”m not exactly nervous myself, but probably will get butterflies as we watch the launch on the net. Still, there’ll be wine to steady our nerves…

I  remember very well the “launch”, in 1996, of a mission called Cluster which many of my colleagues at Queen Mary were heavily involved. This was the first flight of Ariane-5. Bugs in the software meant it lost control shortly after launch and the party very soon turned into a wake, although the resulting fireworks were quite spectacular.

Because the Ariane-5 vehicle was brand new, and somewhat untested, the European Space Agency had decided to take advantage of an offer to launch the mission without charge. This seemed like a good deal because the costs of putting an experiment in space are a sizeable fraction of the overall budget for such missions. It turned out, though, that the old expression was true. There’s no such thing as a free launch.

In fact, Cluster did eventually fly using flight spares and a launch on a Russian spacecraft. If Planck and Herschel go boom then there’s no way they can be replaced. It would be a terrible thing if this happened, for a large number of reasons, but Ariane-5 has launched many times since then, and I’m confident that both Planck and Herschel will soon be safely on their way to L2.

But don’t expect any science immediately, especially not from Planck. It will be years before the key science results emerge and, until then, the science team is sworn to secrecy….

The Anachronic Jazz Band

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on May 10, 2009 by telescoper

I heard a record by this band ages and ages ago (probably in the 70s) and was delighted to be reminded of them by finding this little clip on Youtube. It’s a bit of an oddity, but I think it’s  both fun and fascinating.

The Anachronic Jazz Band is, I think, now defunct but they were from Paris originally. The style they played in could probably be described as like the New York style of the late 1920s, with definite touches of Bix Beiderbecke. On the other hand, the tunes they played all came from the era of modern jazz, such as this one which is the Charlie Parker classic Anthropology. I’ve already posted a version of it  by Bud Powell, in fact..

You might think that an uncompromising bebop number like this would pose unsurmountable challenges for a traditional jazz outfit, but I think they pull it off rather well. I think though that they were probably helped by the fact that this tune, like many modern jazz compositions, is actually based on a chord progression belonging to a much more familiar tune. In this case the harmonies actually derive from George Gershwin’s standard I Got Rhythm….

Anyway, perhaps the efforts of this fine little band go some way to showing that there’s more continuity between traditional and modern jazz than one might suppose…

Space Experiments

Posted in Art, Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 9, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve been disconnected from the blogosphere for a few days,  as one of the consequences of a very interesting trip  to Berlin from which I’ve just returned.

When I received an invitation a few months ago to give a lecture on cosmology at the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Space Experiments), I first thought that the “space experiment” concerned would be the forthcoming Planck mission, which is now firmly scheduled for launch on the afternoon of 14th May 2009. However, the institute I visited  is in fact part of the Universität der Künste Berlin (Arts University of Berlin) . It’s a new project run by Olafur Eliasson, a famous artist and a Professor at the University and I was one of a series of guests invited to talk to the students about various aspects of space and time. Olafur was one of the people behind the Experiment Marathon in Reykjavik which was almost exactly a year ago, and he’d decided to invite me to his new institute here and now as a result of my contribution there and then.

I was quite apprehensive about doing this because I’m really extremely ignorant about art, and didn’t want to appear too much of a philistine. I therefore decided to prepare a talk that was focussed strongly on the science but with just one or two references to works of art.  It turned out that the artist Matthew Ritchie was also around and keen to participate so we decided to do a joint presentation.

The eminent art historian Caroline Jones from MIT also sat in, contributing to the discussion and adding her own insights along the way

Matthew spoke first about how art can draw ideas and inspiration from scientific thought and argued that this was especially relevant today when science is so full of strange and wonderful concepts. Along the way he demonstrated an unexpectedly deep understanding of subjects such as thermodynamics, relativity and quantum theory.

I then took over and talked about cosmology, trying to focus on the interplay between theory and observation in order to convey some sort of idea of how the process of science actually works in this field.  I was particularly keen to get across the idea that we haven’t made scientific progress in cosmology by merely looking and recording. We have had needed to build theoretical frameworks to help us interpret what we see and to plan new observations.

Although we’d only discussed things for a few minutes before the event, as it turned out the two talks dovetailed rather nicely, I think.

When I was finished, Matthew finished by showing some of his own works which are complex, multi-faceted, multi-media creations evocations of and responses to ideas often, but not exclusively, arising from theoretical physics. The photograph above shows one of his installations. I haven’t seen his work up close, but it struck me as astonishingly inventive but at the same time possessing a great unity about it. His works are extremely diverse but they all seem to have a very distinctive signature all of his own.

After the talks and lots of discussion we adjourned for a nice dinner in a local bistro with some of the students who carried on asking about various bits of physics, such as the possible existence of  closed timelike curves. I was delighted by the intensity of their curiosity, which went far beyond that displayed by most physics students!

These days there seem to be quite a lot of initiatives aimed at promoting a dialogue between art and science although most of them don’t seem to be very successful. Science and art are obviously quite different types of activity. Each is also surrounded by a discursive penumbra of metaphors and simplifications that attempts to articulate what is going on inside the field to those outside. Not all artists try to explain their work in this way and neither do all scientists. Often the result is that the arts-science dialogue is simply a coming together of relatively superficial interpretations that does not really bring the core domains any closer. What is particularly impressive about Matthew Ritchie is that he does seem to have deeper insights into science than many artists and he responds to those insights in a way that is highly original.

The other thing that struck me after taking part in this event was the difference between art as a process and the products of that process in terms of “works of art”. Similar  processes are involved in making art as are needed in science, such as those involving problem-solving about how to implement an idea in a painting, sculpture or an equation. What differs is that works of art are, to a greater or lesser extent, consumable by the general public while those of science are not.

 The invitation to do this talk also gave me the chance to take a trip down the Unter den Linden of my memory. I’ve actually been to Berlin twice before. Once, about 25 years ago when I was a student, and then again in the early 90s when I attended a conference in Potsdam.

This time I stayed in a charming but rather antiquated hotel in the Prenzlauer Berg area of the city. Before 1989 this was in East Berlin, on the “wrong” side of the Berlin Wall. It had, however, escaped the total devastation that rained down on most of the rest of Berlin during the later stages of the war and it managed to retain much of its interesting architecture. After reunification it became a rather bohemian area and many artists set up studios there, which is presumably part of the reason my hosts had located there. Prenzlauer Berg had also been a major centre for Berlin’s sizeable  beer-making industry. One of the larger breweries has now been transformed into an exciting arts centre called the Kulturbrauerei and the Institut fur Raümexperimente is itself also housed in buildings that were once part of a brewery.  In fact, the whole area was built in the 19th century, itself a kind of space experiment, and still incorporates many features arising from its origins as an innovative piece of urban planning.

When I first came to the cityof Berlin in 1985 I stayed in the West – with its ostentatiously exuberant and uninhibited nightlife, West Berlin was an amazing place to visit in those days. I did, however, have a pass to travel to the East for a day. I remember walking through Checkpoint Charlie, on Friedrichstrasse, after passing through Potsdammerplatz south of the  Brandenburg Gate and looking eastwards across the strip of waste ground that had been levelled to create a killing zone for  escapees coming in the other direction. The transition from affluent and colourful West Berlin to the dreary drabness of the East was like swtiching channels to find a black-and-white movie on view. It was also frightening because everywhere you looked there were guns pointed at you, especially on the return leg from East to West. I also remember thinking how much the shoddy and unimaginative postwar architecture of East Berlin reminded me of Wolverhampton.

The drastic social and political experiment that lay behind the Berlin Wall was ultimately a failure, but its legacy will only slowly vanish. There are still signs of it even today, almost twenty years after the Wall fell in a metaphorical sense.

This time I reversed my previous path, starting out in the East and walking to the West. This time both sides were in glorious colour. In fact, it was a lovely spring morning and there were tourists everywhere.

Very little of the wall now remains. When I came in the 90s, just  a few years after the momentous events of 1989, much of it was still intact although there was a big gap in the central section. The killing zone was a strip of rubble-strewn ground which it was possible to walk over without any real hindrance.  Hitler’s bunker was located there too, although its position wasn’t advertised for fear of it becoming some kind of grisly  shrine.

At that time path of the wall through the city was easy to follow by eye as it was marked by the tall cranes involved in massive construction projects aimed at removing the scar that the wall had carved across the face of the city.

Returning now to the same location, I found new buildings covering almost all of the old cold war stuff but, in between the offices and administrative buildings, there is also a sombre and very moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Checkpoint Charlie has gone too, of course, but its site is also marked by a museum. Elsewhere in the city only one or two pieces of the wall remain, the biggest one in Bernauer Strasse, not far from my hotel.

It was fascinating to see the how the city slowly is renewing itself. There is still a huge amount of building going on but it’s a wonderful city to move around and it’s very green. The wide boulevards give a tremendous sense of space which contrasts enormously with the creeping claustrophobia of London.

Back from Berlin on Friday lunchtime I had time to pop into the RAS meeting and dine again at the RAS Club before returning on the late train back to Cardiff, bringing closure to a little space-like curve of my own. 

A short trip, but  fascinating and very enjoyable.

The Onions

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , on May 4, 2009 by telescoper

I’m not going to make excuses. This is a piece of pure nostalgia.

We had this old record in the house when I was a little kid. It was quite an innovation at the time. Most of the jazz records my dad had collected were on 10″ shellac discs to be played at 78rpm. This was a very limited format in that you could never get more than about 3 minutes on each side. They were also extremely fragile. Most of the ones we used to have ended up broken into pieces.

But when Humphrey Lyttelton’s band did a concert in 1954 at the then very new Royal Festival Hall in London, the Parlophone label decided to release four tracks on a vinyl EP (extended play). This allowed them to get a longer playing time but also meant that the actual discs  survived a bit longer than 78s used to.

I was born in 1963, about nine years after the record was released but I distinctly remember as a kid sitting in our house in Benwell with this record playing on our little gramophone. I never seemed to be able to shout “Onions” on the right beat in the little two-bar interval left for the purpose. But, then again, neither did many in the audience.

Humph himself (who died a year ago) does the announcement in that instantly recognizeable voice of his. The whole band plays wonderfully too, but I’d like to single out the clarinet of Wally Fawkes for special mention. In case  you didn’t know,  Wally Fawkes  is actually a pseudonym for the award-winning cartoonist Trog. Anyway, on this track he gives an object lesson in how to build a solo: starting off in the smoky lower register then gradually building up steam until just after 2 minutes in he steps on the gas, switches to the upper register and wails like  a banshee. He never plays anything very complicated and I must have heard that moment hundreds of times over the years but it still gives me a buzz!

They sure don’t make them like this any more.

The Cosmic Tightrope

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 3, 2009 by telescoper

Here’s a thought experiment for you.

Imagine you are standing outside a sealed room. The contents of the room are hidden from you, except for a small window covered by a curtain. You are told that you can open the curtain once and only briefly to take a peep at what is inside, and you may do this whenever you feel the urge.

You are told what is in the room. It is bare except for a tightrope suspended across it about two metres in the air. Inside the room is a man who at some time in the past – you’re not told when – began walking along the tightrope. His instructions were to carry on walking backwards and forwards along the tightrope until he falls off, either through fatigue or lack of balance. Once he falls he must lie motionless on the floor.

You are not told whether he is skilled in tightrope-walking or not, so you have no way of telling whether he can stay on the rope for a long time or a short time. Neither are you told when he started his stint as a stuntman.

What do you expect to see when you eventually pull the curtain?

Well, if the man does fall off sometime it will clearly take him a very short time to drop to the floor. Once there he has to stay there.One outcome therefore appears very unlikely: that at the instant you open the curtain, you see him in mid-air between a rope and a hard place.

Whether you expect him to be on the rope or on the floor depends on information you do not have. If he is a trained circus artist, like the great Charles Blondin here, he might well be capable of walking to and fro along the tightrope for days. If not, he would probably only manage a few steps before crashing to the ground. Either way it remains unlikely that you catch a glimpse of him in mid-air during his downward transit. Unless, of course, someone is playing a trick on you and someone has told the guy to jump when he sees the curtain move.

This probably seems to have very little to do with physical cosmology, but now forget about tightropes and think about the behaviour of the mathematical models that describe the Big Bang. To keep things simple, I’m going to ignore the cosmological constant and just consider how things depend on one parameter, the density parameter Ω0. This is basically the ratio between the present density of the matter in the Universe compared to what it would have to be to cause the expansion of the Universe eventually to halt. To put it a slightly different way, it measures the total energy of the Universe. If Ω0>1 then the total energy of the Universe is negative: its (negative) gravitational potential energy dominates over the (positive) kinetic energy. If Ω0<1 then the total energy is positive: kinetic trumps potential. If Ω0=1 exactly then the Universe has zero total energy: energy is precisely balanced, like the man on the tightrope.

A key point, however, is that the trade-off between positive and negative energy contributions changes with time. The result of this is that Ω is not fixed at the same value forever, but changes with cosmic epoch; we use Ω0 to denote the value that it takes now, at cosmic time t0, but it changes with time.

At the beginning, at the Big Bang itself,  all the Friedmann models begin with Ω arbitrarily close to unity at arbitrarily early times, i.e. the limit as t tends to zero is Ω=1.

In the case in which the Universe emerges from the Big bang with a value of Ω just a tiny bit greater than one then it expands to a maximum at which point the expansion stops. During this process Ω grows without bound. Gravitational energy wins out over its kinetic opponent.

If, on the other hand, Ω sets out slightly less than unity – and I mean slightly, one part in 1060 will do – the Universe evolves to a state where it is very close to zero. In this case kinetic energy is the winner  and Ω ends up on the ground, mathematically speaking.

In the compromise situation with total energy zero, this exact balance always applies. The universe is always described by Ω=1. It walks the cosmic tightrope. But any small deviation early on results in runaway expansion or catastrophic recollapse. To get anywhere close to Ω=1 now – I mean even within a factor ten either way – the Universe has to be finely tuned.

A slightly different way of describing this is to think instead about the radius of curvature of the Universe. In general relativity the curvature of space is determined by the energy (and momentum) density. If the Universe has zero total energy it is flat, so it doesn’t have any curvature at all so its curvature radius is infinite. If it has positive total energy the curvature radius is finite and positive, in much the same way that a sphere has positive curvature. In the opposite case it has negative curvature, like a saddle. I’ve blogged about this before.

I hope you can now see how this relates to the curious case of the tightrope walker.

If the case Ω0= 1 applied to our Universe then we can conclude that something trained it to have a fine sense of equilibrium. Without knowing anything about what happened at the initial singularity we might therefore be pre-disposed to assign some degree of probability that this is the case, just as we might be prepared to imagine that our room contained a skilled practitioner of the art of one-dimensional high-level perambulation.

On the other hand, we might equally suspect that the Universe started off slightly over-dense or slightly under-dense, at which point it should either have re-collapsed by now or have expanded so quickly as to be virtually empty.

About fifteen years ago, Guillaume Evrard and I tried to put this argument on firmer mathematical grounds by assigning a sensible prior probability to Ω based on nothing other than the assumption that our Universe is described by a Friedmann model.

The result we got was that it should be of the form

P(\Omega) \propto \Omega^{-1}(\Omega-1)^{-1}.

I was very pleased with this result, which is based on a principle advanced by physicist Ed Jaynes, but I have no space to go through the mathematics here. Note, however, that this prior has three interesting properties: it is infinite at Ω=0 and Ω=1, and it has a very long “tail” for very large values of Ω. It’s not a very well-behaved measure, in the sense that it can’t be integrated over, but that’s not an unusual state of affairs in this game. In fact it is an improper prior.

I think of this prior as being the probabilistic equivalent of Mark Twain’s description of a horse:

dangerous at both ends, and uncomfortable in the middle.

Of course the prior probability doesn’t tell usall that much. To make further progress we have to make measurements, form a likelihood and then, like good Bayesians, work out the posterior probability . In fields where there is a lot of reliable data the prior becomes irrelevant and the likelihood rules the roost. We weren’t in that situation in 1995 – and we’re arguably still not - so we should still be guided, to some extent by what the prior tells us.

The form we found suggests that we can indeed reasonably assign most of our prior probability to the three special cases I have described. Since we also know that the Universe is neither totally empty nor ready to collapse, it does indicate that, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, it is quite reasonable to have a prior preference for the case Ω=1.  Until the late 1980s there was indeed a strong ideological preference for models with Ω=1 exactly, but not because of the rather simple argument given above but because of the idea of cosmic inflation.

From recent observations we now know, or think we know, that Ω is roughly 0.26. To put it another way, this means that the Universe has roughly 26% of the density it would need to have to halt the cosmic expansion at some point in the future. Curiously, this corresponds precisely to the unlikely or “fine-tuned” case where our Universe is in between  two states in which we might have expected it to lie.

Even if you accept my argument that Ω=1 is a special case that is in principle possible, it is still the case that it requires the Universe to have been set up with very precisely defined initial conditions. Cosmology can always appeal to special initial conditions to get itself out of trouble because we don’t know how to describe the beginning properly, but it is much more satisfactory if properties of our Universe are explained by understanding the physical processes involved rather than by simply saying that “things are the way they are because they were the way they were.” The latter statement remains true, but it does not enhance our understanding significantly. It’s better to look for a more fundamental explanation because, even if the search is ultimately fruitless, we might turn over a few interesting stones along the way.

The reasoning behind cosmic inflation admits the possibility that, for a very short period in its very early stages, the Universe went through a phase where it was dominated by a third form of energy, vacuum energy. This forces the cosmic expansion to accelerate. This drastically changes the arguments I gave above. Without inflation the case with Ω=1 is unstable: a slight perturbation to the Universe sends it diverging towards a Big Crunch or a Big Freeze. While inflationary dynamics dominate, however, this case has a very different behaviour. Not only stable, it becomes an attractor to which all possible universes converge. Whatever the pre-inflationary initial conditions, the Universe will emerge from inflation with Ω very close to unity. Inflation trains our Universe to walk the tightrope.

So how can we reconcile inflation with current observations that suggest a low matter density? The key to this question is that what inflation really does is expand the Universe by such a large factor that the curvature radius becomes infinitesimally small. If there is only “ordinary” matter in the Universe then this requires that the universe have the critical density. However, in Einstein’s theory the curvature is zero only if the total energy is zero. If there are other contributions to the global energy budget besides that associated with familiar material then one can have a low value of the matter density as well as zero curvature. The missing link is dark energy, and the independent evidence we now have for it provides a neat resolution of this problem.

Or does it? Although spatial curvature doesn’t really care about what form of energy causes it, it is surprising to some extent that the dark matter and dark energy densities are similar. To many minds this unexplained coincidence is a blemish on the face of an otherwise rather attractive structure.

It can be argued that there are initial conditions for non-inflationary models that lead to a Universe like ours. This is true. It is not logically necessary to have inflation in order for the Friedmann models to describe a Universe like the one we live in. On the other hand, it does seem to be a reasonable argument that the set of initial data that is consistent with observations is larger in models with inflation than in those without it. It is rational therefore to say that inflation is more probable to have happened than the alternative.

I am not totally convinced by this reasoning myself, because we still do not know how to put a reasonable measure on the space of possibilities existing prior to inflation. This would have to emerge from a theory of quantum gravity which we don’t have. Nevertheless, inflation is a truly beautiful idea that provides a framework for understanding the early Universe that is both elegant and compelling. So much so, in fact, that I almost believe it.

Christopher Logue

Posted in Jazz, Poetry with tags , on May 3, 2009 by telescoper

Poetry is in the news today.

Yesterday’s announcement that the 23rd  Poet laureate is to be Carol Anne Duffy has generated as much comment about her sexual orientation as the undoubted quality of her verse.

But that’s not the point of this post.

I don’t know why but all the stuff in the papers reminded of a very rare recording I heard years ago the poet Christopher Logue with a Jazz group led by the drummer Tony Kinsey.

Christopher Logue is now in his eighties and is probably best known as a regular contributor to the satirical magazine Private Eye (to which I have not yet cancelled my subscription). Among other things in the Eye, he edits the hilarious Pseuds Corner, a collection of the most pretentious drivel culled from newspapers and magazines.

But he’s also a fine poet in his own right and has been for many years.

The first time I heard this old recording made in the late 1950s, I didn’t listen very carefully to the words. I thought it was just a very funny skit – a posh British guy doing beat poems couldn’t possibly be serious, could it?   Especially if it sounds like Allen Ginsberg meets Julian Clary…

..but listening to it again, and especially studying the words it’s grown on me so much I now think it’s a minor masterpiece.

large_8be9743ce0f84fa88d982cbdb1949b9cThere is an audio-only version on Youtube, but it refuses to be embedded. Click here if you want to hear the performance on record.

Now read the lyrics:


Lithe girl, brown girl
Sun that makes apples, stiffens the wheat
Made your body a joy
Tongue like a red bird dancing on ivory
To stretch your arm
Sun grabs at your hair
Like water was falling

Tantalize the sun if you dare
It will leave shadows that match you
Lithe girl, brown girl
Nothing draws me towards you
The heat within you beats me home
Like the sun at high noon

Knowing these things
Perhaps through
Knowing these things
I seek you out
Listening for your voice
For the brush of your arms against wheat
For your step among poppies grown underwater
Lithe girl, brown girl


Steep gloom among pine trees
Waves’ surge breaking
Slow lights that interweave
A single bell

As the day’s end falls into your eyes
The earth starts singing in your body
As the waves sing in a white shell
And the rivers sing within you
And I grow outwards on them
As you direct them
Whither you make them run

I follow for you like a hare
Running reared upright to the hunter’s drum
You turn about me like a belt of clouds
the silence, though it is stupid
Mocks the hours I lay
Troubled by…… nothing

Your arms – translucent stones wherein I lie
And future kisses
Your mysterious voice
Folds close echoes
That shift throughout the night
Much as the wind
Which moves darkly over the profitable fields
Folds down the wheat
From all its height


In the hot depth of summer
The morning is close, storm-filled
Clouds shift -
White rags waving goodbye
Shaken by the frantic wind as it goes and
As it goes
The wind throbs over us
Love-making silenced

Among the trees like a tongue singing
A warning or just singing the wind throbs
And the quick sparrow’s flight is slapped by the wind
Swift thief destructive as waves
Weightless without form
Struck through and through with flame
Which breaks
Soughing its strength out
At the gates of the enormous, silent, summer wind


That you may hear me
My words narrow occasionally
Like gull-tracks in the sand

Or I let them become
Tuneful beads
Mixed with the sound

Of a drunk hawk’s bell
Flick me your wrists…..
Soft as grape skin – yes

Softer than grapeskin I make them
Which is a kind of treachery against the world

You who clamber
Over all the desolations of mine
Gentle as ivy
Eat the words’ meaning

Before you came to me
Words were all that you now occupy
And now they’re no more these words
Than ever they knew of my sadness

Force and dead anguish still drags them
And yes

Malevolent dreams still betimes
Overwhelm them and then

In my bruised voice
You hear other bruised voices
Old agues crying out of old mouths

Do not be angry with me
Lest the wave of that anguish
Drown me again

Even as I sit
Threading a collar of beads for your hands
Softer than grape skin
Hung with a drunk hawk’s bell

I think these are beautiful poems made even more effective by the musical setting. In fact they are loose re-workings of some of the famous love poems of Pablo Neruda. Logue moved far away from the Neruda’s originals, but put them into impressionistic free verse, which he reads in his plummy English accent, while the band provides appropriate backing for the sentiments of the poetry as well as providing improvised passages in between the verses.

Looking at this now, I have no idea why I thought it was meant to be funny.

Good News, Bad News

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on May 1, 2009 by telescoper

Further to my gloomy prognosis about the implications of the Budget for astronomy research, I’ve managed to glean the following interpretation of the outcome for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Just to remind you that the situation before the budget settlement was announced last week was truly dire, with  falling exchange rates leading to rises in the cost of subscriptions putting pressure on an already overstretched STFC budget. In fact, STFC actually underspent last year but was not allowed to carry the underspend forward into the tax year beginning this April so that has done nothing to help the imminent financial meltdown. The overall  shortfall for 2009-10 was estimated pre-budget to be about £80 million, meaning that £80 million of current commitments would have to be ditched if nothing was done.

First, the good news. After the budget it has emerged that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)  has taken steps to “lend” STFC money to plug the shortfall arising from exchange rate fluctuations. This means the actual shortfall is not going to be as large as the previous estimate.

Now the bad news. There is no new money for STFC,  and there is consequently still a serious gap in the finances. There will have to be about £20 million savings this financial year (against current commitment) and about £30 million next year. Not as bad as £80 million, but still very tough.

At this moment the powers that be are dusting off the Programmatic Review which involved the prioritisation of missions and facilities within the STFC remit. There is also yet another review of ground-based astronomy which is meant to be a long-term thing, but will presumably inform the decision-making process in the short term too.

A line had previously drawn as far down the  list of priorities as funding would permit. Now the available funds are less the line will have to rise and some astronomical projects that thought they were safe will have to be ditched after all. This also depends on whether STFC saves money in other ways,  such as from the grants line or by internal savings within its own administration.

It will be a nervous wait for many of us to see where and the axe will fall next…


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